The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast

PrintPrintEmailEmail

To his contemporaries Thomas Nast was unquestionably America’s greatest and most effective political cartoonist, attacking corruption with a brilliant and often vitriolic pen, harrying the bosses, creating the political symbols that still remain the emblems of our two major political parties. His grandson’s impression is quite different. He remembers him as a gentle and witty companion, as the creator of our conception of Santa Claus, as a sad and lonely man whose life ended poignantly in a foreign land. Harper & Row, whose predecessor company first published m i8go a collection of Mast’s Christmas pictures, will reprint later this month Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race , with a new text by that grandson, Thomas Mast St. Hill. The following article is excerpted from this biographical reminiscence.

My grandfather Thomas Nast, America’s most famous political cartoonist and the creator of the image of Santa Claus as we recognize him today, was born in 1840 in a military barracks in Landau, Bavaria, where his father was a musician in the gth Regiment Bavarian Band. The elder Nast, my great-grandfather, while not an agitator, was a man of liberal ideas; and in view of the political turmoil then prevalent in Germany his friendly commandant suggested that America might be a better place for a man so fond of free speech. So it was that my grandfather, then six years old, and his mother and older sister departed for the United States in 1846 and settled in New York. Nast senior followed four years later after serving out his enlistment. Upon his arrival in New York he found employment in the orchestra of Burton’s Theatre on Chambers Street and became a member of the Philharmonic Society.

As soon as they were settled in New York, Thomas and his older sister were entered in one of the city’s public schools. The young German boy was handicapped by not being able to speak a word of English. Furthermore, it soon became apparent that my grandfather was no scholar. His only interest was in drawing, and after six years of regular schooling his parents decided to transfer him to art school. Here he proved an apt pupil, but his father found that the tuition was prohibitive on a musician’s wages. Consequently, at age fifteen Thomas Nast’s formal education was abruptly ended, and he went out into the world to earn his living. Surprisingly, he was offered a job following his first interview.

When the roly-poly German boy appeared in the office of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper , a popular weekly published in New York, he was ushered into the presence of publisher Frank Leslie, to whom he showed some of his sketches and explained that he would like to draw for the magazine. Seeking to impress the aspiring fifteen-year-old with the absurdity of his request, Leslie gave him an assignment. It was to go down to the Christopher Street ferry-house in lower Manhattan during the rush hour and draw a picture of the crowd boarding the boat. To the publisher’s great surprise the young artist returned with a very commendable picture that won him a job as illustrator with Leslie’s at a salary of four dollars a week. For several years thereafter Nast’s drawings appeared in the magazine, and it was during this time that he drew his first cartoons attacking civic dishonesty.

It was fortunate that my grandfather went to work when he did, for in 1858 his father died, and the artist, then eighteen, was obliged to contribute to the support of his mother. Not long afterward Leslie’s was forced to cut salaries because of financial problems, and young Nast left the magazine and went to work in a friend’s art studio. While there he made his first drawing for Harper’s Weekly , and in 1859 a page of his pictures depicting the police scandal in New York City was accepted by the magazine.

During these years young Thomas met and fell in love with Sarah Edwards, a cultured and charming young lady of English parentage, who would later become his wife— and my grandmother. Although his wages had increased to twenty dollars a week, Nast was hardly in a position to ask Miss Edwards’ hand in marriage. Accordingly, when an offer came to join the staff of the New York Illustrated News at twice his current salary, he jumped at it.

Next came an opportunity to go abroad for the News and send back pictures of the Heenan-Sayers heavyweight championship fight in England. Nast accepted the assignment, hoping that by so doing he could acquire the necessary nest egg on which to get married.

In February, 1860, the artist, not yet twenty years old, sailed for England, very much in love, as his letters home revealed, but not quite sure that his Sally would be waiting for him when he returned.

Thomas Nast’s trip abroad lasted a year and included a stint in Italy covering Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign to liberate his native country from Austrian domination. When Nast arrived home, he had hardly improved his fortunes. In fact, he had only a dollar and a half in his pocket. But Sally was still waiting faithfully for him, and he was no longer deterred from pressing his suit.

He went back to work for the News and finally prevailed upon Sally’s parents to consent to their marriage, which took place on September 26, 1861, the day before Thomas Nast’s twenty-first birthday. The bride was twenty.